While conflicting messages have been coming from the Swedish Public Health Authority on the pursuit of so-called herd immunity in fighting the coronavirus, the region of Norrbotten, Sweden's northernmost, has admitted that its strategy is to spread it to “almost everyone”.
“Almost all Norrbotten residents, or at least a large part of them, will have to go through this infection in a few years before it becomes a common cold that does not affect us so much”, infection control physician Anders Nystedt told national broadcaster SVT. “It would be great if younger people quickly, but peacefully went through this infection and became immune. Our goal is to slowly build up immunity in the population, so that the infection does not spread so rapidly”, he added.
During a press conference, Anders Nystedt described the strategy using the following metaphor:
“Imagine driving on a greasy and slippery road and then there is an obstacle in the way. You have to slow down. If you brake too little then you crash, but if you brake too much then you skid into the ditch. It's important to slow down just enough to let go so we slowly build up this herd immunity”, Nystedt said.
This, however, is only partially consistent with the strategy envisioned by Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. At a recent press conference, he resolutely rejected the idea that Sweden's strategy is building up herd immunity, while insisting that it is the only way of stopping the pandemic.
“I believe all countries hope for herd immunity, that's the only thing that will ever make this spread stop in a reasonable way. Only when a decent share of people are immune, the rate of spread will go down by itself in a sustainable way”, Tegnell said, as quoted by Finnish broadcaster Yle.
According to Tegnell, measures to flatten the curve may prove effective for shorter periods, but will not give any lasting effect.
Sweden belongs to the countries with the least restrictions in place. With only a few exceptions, such as a limit on public gatherings, Sweden is running in business-as-usual mode, with most restrictions being voluntary. Restaurants are open, and so are schools.
While Sweden's strategy has sparked polarising reactions abroad, with people being equally thrilled and appalled by the government's laissez-faire approach, it has had the support of Swedes so far. Countless Facebook groups have been formed to support Tegnell, the largest of which has 60,000 members. Also, the ruling Social Democrats enjoy a spike in support, while Prime Minister Stefan Löfven's popularity is higher than it has been in a long time.
Sweden currently has 6,830 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 401 fatalities. Most of the victims represent the 80-90 age bracket.
According to Anders Nystedt, though, the number of unreported cases is very high, as only the tip of the COVID-19 iceberg is revealed via tests. He estimates that anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people are infected in Norrbotten County alone (population 250,000), and the country is farther ahead on the epidemic curve than previously thought.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe, with over 1,270,000 confirmed cases worldwide and at least 69,450 fatalities from the disease. The United States remains the hardest hit country with almost one-fourth of the world's infected (at least 337,000), while Italy and Spain remain epicentre of the outbreak in Europe with the highest numbers of deaths (15,887 and 12,641, respectively).